Viva la Francia

  • Wednesday 1 May 2002

Sebastiano Castiglione is a proponent of French varieties in his Tuscan wines at Querciabella. RICHARD BAUDAINS finds out why.

The French believe in terroir, the Americans in varietals and the Australians in flying winemakers. And the Italians? The Italians, collectively speaking, haven't yet agreed what school of winemaking they believe in (it would be surprising if they had), but understanding how individual estates approach the issues is a way of understanding what makes them tick. Take Tuscan winery Agricola Querciabella.

Querciabella is located at Rufoli, halfway between the villages of Greve and Panzano, in classic Chianti terroir. The soils are rich in the flaky grey shale known as galestro, on which some of central Tuscany's most important wines are made. The climate of this northeasten part of the DOCG zone is cooler and damper than other areas further south, but the basic features are those common to the Chianti Classico as a whole – mild winters, rain in spring and long, hot, dry summers. Natural conditions for the production of high quality wine.The estate was founded in 1972 by a Milanese industrialist with a passion for wine called Giovanni Castiglione. It is now run by his son, Sebastiano, a classics graduate, former graphic designer, polyglot and, like his father, a self-confessed 'maniac about wine'. Querciabella's reds were inspired by the depth, elegance and ageing potential of Bordeaux. Sebastiano modestly refrains from direct comparison, but he finds an echo of La Mission Haut-Brion in older vintages of his Camartina. One of his father's ambitions was to produce a major white wine, an enterprise which few Chianti estates have attempted and in which even fewer have succeeded. The IGT Batàr is fermented in barriques and aged on the lees in Burgundian style. Sebastiano tells the story of a blind tasting organised by a famous Burgundy barrel maker at which a leading producer of Bâtard-Montrachet gave top marks to Querciabella, convinced it was his wine.

The thinking on varieties at Querciabella is not uncontroversial. Sangiovese has a virtual monopoly in the area, yet one of the first things Giovanni Castiglione did when he arrived was to introduce Cabernet Sauvignon. French varieties, which now include Merlot and Syrah, currently account for about a third of red grape production on the property. Sebastiano makes no bones about the reason: 'I consider Sangiovese an interesting varietal, although with all its defects it does not allow us to create the great wines that could be created here with other varietals. If I were not in a Chianti Classico area I would certainly replace it. I try to make the best out of it, but it's not my ideal wine.' So where does this leave Querciabella in the school-of-winemaking debate? The wines have double hallmarks; on the one hand a unique and carefully honed estate style, and on the other that of authentic Tuscan terroir. The estate's trademark wines are the beautifully balanced multi-grape cuvées. Batàr avoids the clichés of its genre in an original and highly successful blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco. Camartina, for all Sebastiano's feelings about the disparity between the varieties, is a seamless blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot, rounded off with a drop of Syrah. Current versions of the Chianti Classico Riserva are possibly more anchored to Sangiovese (and are, in my opinion, none the worse for it) but the plan under the newly modified DOCG norms is to direct it towards a more estate-wine style by bumping up the percentage of Merlot. As for the terroir, you taste it in the complex, earthy aromas, in the dry, tangy firmness and vigour of the reds, but never in the form of the coarseness which can overtake the wines of central Tuscany.

The wines made by oenologist Guido de Santi and consultant Giacomo Tachis have the concentration that comes from low yields (Sebastiano considers the use of concentrators a total aberration) and textures from perfectly judged extraction and oak ageing. Querciabella was one of the first all-barrique estates in Chianti, but Sebastiano is at pains to underline the policy on barrel age. 'We don't emphasise the oaky style,' he says. Querciabella wines remind one of Tachis' dictum that the best barrique-aged wines are the ones that don't taste of barrique.Postscript: Watch out for the wines from the Castiglione family's new Maremma estate. Details of the highly innovative winery are still under wraps, but the plan is to produce a Bordeaux-style blend and a Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe-type red from Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise.

Richard Baudains is a journalist and Italian expert, living in Italy.

Tasting Notes

Batar IGT Toscana
1999 Candied fruit with vanilla and crusty bread. Compact palate with lovely balance and appetising citrus finish. Very young. As a rule of thumb, Batàr begins to open up around four years from the vintage.

1998 Rich straw shade. Open and immediate on the nose, soft and fleshy with lots of fruit on the palate. A big, opulent, buttery-oak wine from a warm vintage. Quite forward, but, like the 1999, this still needs time.

1997 Lovely freshness on the nose and a long and intensely flavoured palate with a dry, peachy finish. A vintage which combines structure and elegance, and still has a great deal to offer over the next two to three years.

1996 Luxurious tropical fruit with integrated toasty oak and the first hints of petrolly maturity on the nose. Sumptuous palate of oily richness balanced by a savoury mineral finish.

1995 Lovely pale golden straw shade. Composed and stylish on the nose, round and soft on the palate with a return of sweet candied peel in the finish. More grace than power.

Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG
1998 Very typical floral-earthy Chianti nose. On the palate there are chunky tannins and the finish has savoury plums. Good, substantial, upfront riserva from a middling vintage.

1997 Intense Sangiovese nose with a weave of woodland and wild berry aromas, firm but elegant tannins and bags of grip. This vintage is emerging now; vibrant, full of character, perhaps a little austere – but the kind of modern riserva Chianti Classico aficionados dream about.

1996 Mature, cherry-fruit nose and well-built, savoury dry palate. The slightly edgy character of the vintage comes through, but it is more than compensated for by the complex and stylish aromas.

Camartina IGT Toscana
1997 Dark ruby, defined fruit and silky tannins. Barely open but its class stands out a mile. The breadth and depth of the 1995, but with possibly even greater elegance and refinement.

1996 Plum and a terroir note of sweet liquorice on the nose. The texture is a little sinewy but good tangy fruit on the palate. Slightly balsamic in the finish.

1995 Showstopper of a nose of huge class and complexity, and a palate with superb development and almost infinite length. A Tuscan classic.

1994 Notes of leathery maturity beginning to show from beneath the fruit. Broad, quite weighty palate with a velvety texture and ripe, warm vintage fruit. This is drinking now.

1991 The nose of mushroom, leather and chestnut flour shows signs of maturity, but there is still lots of fruit, life and texture to testify to the consistency of Camartina even in very ordinary vintages.

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